What it’s like to pitch a TV show

Terrifying. Exhausting. Crushing. Humiliating.

Welcome to TV pitch season.

This is just my third go-round, so understand my view is that of a newbie who still kind of totally sucks at this. (For advice and a far more experienced take on pitch meetings, I’m currently reading Lynda Obst‘s wonderful “Hello, He Lied.”)

My first year, my manager managed to wrangle a blind-script deal from Warner Bros., so I didn’t have to trot out to the networks. Last year, my second try, I had a deal from Sony called an if-come, which means if I sold it, the money would come. This year, I’m pitching a spec*, so my meetings are by phone. Which is much, much easier.

Sold

If it were this easy… (Credit: Lucidio Studios)

But who wants to hear about easier? Let me tell you about last year!

I started with an idea. I started with a lot of ideas, actually, but only one that my manager and agents thought passed muster. Then began the laborious process of matching me up with an entourage.

The reason I needed a team is that I’m Lisa who? If a David Shore (creator of HOUSE) or a Shawn Ryan (creator of THE SHIELD) wandered into a network exec’s office with a germ of an idea, chances are they’d walk out with a bid. If a mom from New Jersey wanders in…well, she wouldn’t, because she wouldn’t get past the security guard at the gates.

Someone like me needs back-up, because back-up confers legitimacy. That means before I even hit up a network, I needed to first land a show-runner. And a production company. And a studio.

Show-runners, as you probably grew up knowing but I didn’t, are the rare breed who make a living orchestrating TV series. One of those meetings occurred a few hours after I stepped off a Jet Blue flight to Burbank (because it’s cheaper than flying into LAX). I was staying at a crack motel east of the 101 in Thai Town. My room smelled of nail polish and fish sauce.

Dizzy with fatigue, I arranged to meet the show-runner at a restaurant in West Hollywood. I parked nearby, and, as I crossed the street, I fell. I mean I fell. An honest-to-goodness, movie-stunt wipe-out—the one in which the girl in heels flies knees first into the asphalt, with three cyclist dudes watching, and her iPhone flies out of her hand into the puddle at the edge of the road.

I walked into the meeting shaking, my knees bloody. This show-runner was a man in his 50s, the award-winning executive producer of one of the most successful dramas in TV history, one that had recently ended its run.

“I just fell down,” were my first words. You’ll be stunned to learn the pitch that followed was incoherent garbage. He ordered a plate of fries, then sent it back because they weren’t crispy enough. That’s me, I thought. A pile of soggy fries.

“If he agrees to do it,” I later told my manager, “it would be a miracle.” Miracles happen. He agreed.

Albert Brooks

That’s me, pitching. I swear.

Then came the production company. I drove all over town for many meetings in offices big and small, one in a tiny cabin hard by Barham Boulevard, another in a hip renovated warehouse in Santa Monica. One of the last meetings was in a nondescript three-story building in Burbank. The exec and her assistant were young, warm and enthusiastic. They asked smart, probing questions. But they were also insanely busy covering one of the hottest TV dramas on cable, one festooned with awards and approaching its final season. Somehow, they too agreed.

Next, the studio, Sony. They agreed, too, albeit with the aforementioned deal. And for whatever reason, the deal took a long, long time to finalize, putting us at the tail end of pitch season. The result was that, by then, only two networks agreed to see us; the rest had fulfilled their roster of shows like mine.

Nevertheless, we gave it the old college try. My show-runner, producers, studio exec and I sweated to shape and polish the pitch. My pitch document (otherwise known as my crib sheet) grew to five pages, single-spaced. I’m not supposed to read from it…but you try memorizing 20 minutes of choreographed blather.

Let me just stop right here and tell you about my frame of mind at the time. I’d dashed back and forth from New Jersey to L.A. for two months, squatting in whatever crappy accommodations Expedia packaged with my el cheapo flights. My sudden disappearances did not raise my popularity with my spouse and small children. And now my family’s health insurance (I’ll explain this later) and a large chunk of our livelihood depended on how I performed on a single day.

Then: show time.

At the first network, I hit it out the park. I’m telling you. I was chatty, I was funny, the execs laughed, my team smiled. Leaving the room, we high-fived.

At the second, later the same day, I all but threw up on the coffee table. I blame the bottle of Orangina I carelessly swigged pre-meeting. I was working so hard not to belch like a trucker that I broke out in a sweat. You know that scene in BROADCAST NEWS? The one with Albert Brooks and the flop sweat? Yeah.

Bottle of Orangina

Whatever you do, don’t swig this before a pitch.

The execs were lavish in their praise, as is the habit in Hollywood. I heard words like “smart” and “surprising” and “different.” My team was enthusiastic after the first meeting, consoling after the second.

And in the end, neither bought. The flip side of an if-come deal is that if the pitch doesn’t sell, then the money doesn’t come. So I wound up with nada.

That’s what it’s like to pitch a TV show. In case you were wondering.

* This year, like I said, I’m pitching a spec, which is a script I already wrote on the speculation that someone somewhere would buy it. Specs are notoriously hard to sell. But a major studio has just given us a deal. Now they’ve got to sell it to network or cable. All digits crossed.**

** UPDATE: A network bought my pilot! More on this shortly.

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Comments

  1. Congrats. I enjoy your blog. I live in Thai Town. Please tell me you did not stay at the Harvard House on Hollywood Blvd. 🙂

    • lisacullen says:

      Haa! No, but right across the street! Actually it really wasn’t bad, and it certainly was cheap. 🙂

  2. Great article, Lisa! You really know how to lay it all out in a very effing entertaining way!!